In the first two parts of this series, we discussed the Pharisees and the Sadducees. We saw that both influential groups were opposed to Jesus, but oftentimes for different reasons. They did not agree among themselves on important religious teachings, but were united in their rejection of Jesus.
In this third installment, we will focus on the scribes.
According to Young’s Analytical Concordance of the Bible, there are a total of 114 references to the word “scribe”; 53 in the Old Testament and 61 in the New Testament, i.e., 19 in the book of Matthew, 22 in Mark, 15 in Luke, 1 in John and 4 in the book of Acts.
The first mention of the scribes in the Bible is in 2 Samuel 8:17 where Seraiah was the scribe in King David’s administration which was around 3,000 years ago.
biblestudy.org states the following:
“As in other parts of the world, scribes were considered honored professionals whose modern day equivalent would be judges or lawyers. They were generally the most educated men in the nation and as such became influential. In fact, since writing was practiced only by those with a certain level of intelligence, scribes were often considered wise men (1 Chronicles 27:32). They were also eligible to be elected to the Sanhedrin (the supreme and highest council of the Jews).”
The Encyclopaedia Britannica adds:
“In the 1st century, scribes and Pharisees were two largely distinct groups, though presumably some scribes were Pharisees. Scribes had knowledge of the law and could draft legal documents (contracts for marriage, divorce, loans, inheritance, mortgages, the sale of land, and the like). Every village had at least one scribe. Pharisees were members of a party that believed in resurrection and in following legal traditions that were ascribed not to the Bible but to ‘the traditions of the fathers.’ Like the scribes, they were also well-known legal experts: hence the partial overlap of membership of the two groups. It appears from subsequent rabbinic traditions, however, that most Pharisees were small landowners and traders, not professional scribes.”
The Encyclopaedia Judaica gives a very comprehensive description of the origin, role and function of the scribes. We can see from the quotes below that the scribes had adopted and followed many human traditions which were not derived from the Bible, when copying the Old Testament Scriptures:
“… the scribe was a professional expert in the writing of Torah scrolls… These have to be written with a feather quill in indelible ink, in straight lines, and on specially prepared parchment… The profession of scribe was indispensable to the Jewish community, and according to the Talmud… a scholar should not dwell in a town where there is no scribe… The scribe writing a Torah scroll must devote utmost attention and care to the writing; he is forbidden to rely on his memory and has to write from a model copy… His guide is the professional compendium for scribes… which contains the traditional text of the Torah, the specific rules concerning the decorative flourishes… on certain letters, the regulations as to the spacing of certain Torah sections… and the rules for writing Torah scrolls in which each column begins with the Hebrew letter vav… Only the Scroll of Esther may be adorned with artistic illustrations but not the Torah scroll…
“When writing a Torah scroll a scribe must especially prepare himself so that he writes the names of the Lord with proper devotion and in ritual purity. It is, therefore, customary that he immerse himself in a ritual bath… before beginning his work…
“Scribes also acted as recording clerks and court secretaries… They wrote legal documents such as bills of divorce and contracts… there are established rules as to who pays the scribe’s fee…”
Even though they went far beyond the command of God to copy the Holy Scriptures (Exodus 17:14; Deuteronomy 17:18; 31:24-26; Joshua 8:32; 24:26; Hosea 8:12), their methodology guaranteed that the Old Testament was preserved unaltered throughout all generations (Isaiah 40:8; 1 Peter 1:23). For further information in this regard, please read our free booklet, “The Authority of the Bible,” and especially chapters 3-5.
God’s Word First International adds the following:
“Scribes in ancient Israel belonged to an elite class of wealthy families. As such, they were well educated in language and mathematics. Whereas the working class folks had the equivalent of a modern 6th grade education, the Scribes were college level graduates.
“Scribes were distinguished professionals who copied all types of documents, not just the holy scrolls. Sometimes they would also exercise higher functions we would associate with lawyers, government ministers, judges, or even bankers.
“As highly trained, well paid, and respected professionals, they generally had an over inflated sense of self worth. As such, they were pompous and frequently displayed in public an arrogant righteousness.
“The Jewish scribes used the following process for creating copies of the Torah and other books in the Tanakh.
- They could only use clean animal skins, both to write on, and even to bind manuscripts.
- Each column of writing could have no less than forty-eight, and no more than sixty lines.
- The ink must be black, and of a special recipe.
- They must say each word aloud while they were writing.
- They must wipe the pen and wash their entire bodies before writing the most Holy Name of God, YHVH every time they wrote it.
- There must be a review within thirty days, and if as many as three pages required corrections, the entire manuscript had to be redone.
- The letters, words, and paragraphs had to be counted, and the document became invalid if two letters touched each other. The middle paragraph, word and letter must correspond to those of the original document.
- The documents could be stored only in sacred places (synagogues, etc.).
- As no document containing God’s Word could be destroyed, they were stored, or buried.
“Scribes still exist today. Known as a ‘Sofer’ they are among the few scribes that still perform their trade by hand on parchment. Renowned calligraphers, they produce the Hebrew Torah scrolls and other holy texts by hand to this day.”
got questions.org writes this:
“Scribes in ancient Israel were learned men whose business was to study the Law, transcribe it, and write commentaries on it. They were also hired on occasions when the need for a written document arose or when an interpretation of a legal point was needed. Ezra, ‘a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses,’ was a scribe (Ezra 7:6).
“The scribes took their job of preserving Scripture very seriously; they would copy and recopy the Bible meticulously, even counting letters and spaces to ensure each copy was correct…
“In the New Testament era, scribes… were widely respected by the community because of their knowledge, dedication, and outward appearance of Law-keeping.
“The scribes went beyond interpretation of Scripture, however, and added many man-made traditions to what God had said. They became professionals at spelling out the letter of the Law while ignoring the spirit behind it. Things became so bad that the regulations and traditions the scribes added to the Law were considered more important than the Law itself. This led to many confrontations between Jesus and the Pharisees and scribes… Jesus shocked His audience by declaring that the righteousness of the scribes was not enough… He thoroughly condemned the scribes for their hypocrisy… They knew the Law, and they taught it to others, but they did not obey it…”
“At the time of Christ many of the scribes adhered to the teachings of the Pharisees… With the chief priests, Sadducees, and Pharisees, the scribes composed the Jewish aristocracy of the time; and many were members of the Sanhedrin.
“The scribes… are also associated with the chief priests and elders in causing Jesus’ death… The lawyers condemned in Luke 11:45–52 for their hypocrisy are also to be identified with the scribes. Their spiritual descendants were the rabbis whose teachings are recorded in the Talmud.”
From the many references in the New Testament to the scribes, we can see the attitude that they had towards Jesus. The scribes were among Christ’s most watchful and determined opponents. Their many accusations were continually recorded in the gospel accounts. Let us review some of these.
Matthew 16:21: “From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day.”
The same warning is repeated in Mark 8:31 where Jesus predicted His death and resurrection. We read: “And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
Mark 2:16: “And when the scribes and Pharisees saw Him eating with the tax collectors and sinners, they said to His disciples, ‘How is it that He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners?’” (Also see Luke 5:30, 15:2).
When Jesus forgave and healed a paralytic, we read in Mark 2:6-7: “And some of the scribes were sitting there and reasoning in their hearts, ‘Why does this Man speak blasphemies like this? Who can forgive sins but God alone?’”
Mark 3:22: “And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebub,’ and, ‘By the ruler of the demons He casts out demons.’”
It is obvious from the record that whatever Jesus did, they would find fault in some way. They were like many today, those who are just waiting to be offended! They would persecute Jesus because He did not live and behave in the way that they thought He should, based on their traditions. They even accused Him of blasphemy and of being possessed by Satan.
The scribes and others questioned Jesus’ authority, as we read in Mark 11:27-28: “Then they came again to Jerusalem. And as He was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to Him. And they said to Him, ‘By what authority are You doing these things.’” Jesus knew that they were bent on mischief and answered them with a question which they were not prepared to answer (compare verses 29-33).
After Jesus had cleansed the Temple, we read in Mark 11:18: “And the scribes and chief priests heard it and sought how they might destroy Him; for they feared Him, because all the people were astonished at His teaching.”
Because Christ opposed the human unbiblical traditions which were practiced in the Temple, they were willing to destroy Him, as He knew, and they waited for an opportune time, fearing the people who held Christ in high esteem.
Luke 6:7: “So the scribes and Pharisees watched Him closely, whether He would heal on the Sabbath, that they might find an accusation against Him.”
When He did perform a miracle on the Sabbath, Luke 6:11 tells us: “But they were filled with rage, and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.”
Again, they were willing to kill Him because He did not keep the Sabbath in accordance with their traditions.
Later, after Jesus had been arrested and brought before Herod, Luke 23:10 tells us: “And the chief priests and scribes stood and vehemently accused Him.”
John 8:3,6: “Then the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery. And when they had set her in the midst… [they tested] Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear.”
They were trying to test Him so that they could accuse Him of violating the Law. But they themselves were guilty as they had not brought the adulterous man to Jesus—just the woman—and as they were not without sin and therefore unwilling to cast the first stone. This is what the Saviour of mankind had to contend with as He taught the Truth to tax collectors and sinners, cleansed the Temple and healed people, and yet His authority was continually questioned.
In Matthew 23:2-3, Christ said: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do.”
Here we read that Jesus acknowledged their authority to teach God’s Word to the people; however, they were not to follow their example which was contrary to their teaching. Jesus acknowledged as well that they would many times not teach God’s Word, but their own contradictory traditions; He did not tell the people to follow them in that regard, but only insofar as they taught the Word of God. No wonder Jesus called them hypocrites!
In the following verses in Matthew 23, Jesus finally utters a series of eight woes on both the scribes and the Pharisees (verses 13, 14, 15, 16, 23, 25, 27 and 29). In fact, this chapter is an expose on their appalling behaviour as religious teachers!
After Christ’s resurrection, we read in the book of Acts that “the rulers, elders, scribes and others” (Acts 4:5-6) heard the testimony of Peter and “commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus” (verse 18). However, Peter and John refused (verse 20). We read further in Acts 6:12 that the elders and scribes seized Stephen. They were certainly opponents of Jesus in His lifetime and after His death.
We have already seen the constant hostility from the Pharisees and Sadducees that Jesus had to deal with, and the scribes were a further part of the religious life of the Jews who were bent on His destruction.
got questions.org says:
“The scribes, whose stated goal was to preserve the Word, actually nullified it by the traditions they handed down… the scribes were hypocrites at heart. They were more interested in appearing good to men than they were in pleasing God… The lesson every Christian can learn from the hypocrisy of the scribes is that God wants more than outward acts of righteousness. He wants an inward change of heart that is constantly yielding in love and obedience to Christ.”
(To be Continued)
Lead Writers: Brian Gale (United Kingdom) and Norbert Link